When you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll have lots of thoughts racing through your mind. Write them all down. Then turn to your cancer care team for help. They’ll want to answer all your questions about early-stage breast cancer diagnosis and its treatment.
Not only can you learn a lot from your cancer doctor, but you may also work with a team of specialists. For instance, a nurse, social worker, or breast cancer navigator may be your go-to person when you want to learn more about what comes next in your cancer care plan.
It’s easy to forget things when you’re face-to-face with your doctor. To make the most out of your appointments, go in prepared. Here’s a list of questions you can ask:
For specifics about your early-stage breast cancer:
- Do I have a large or small tumor?
- Can I see images of my tumor?
- Does early-stage mean cancer is only in my breast?
- Is the cancer in more than one place in my breast?
- Does my cancer have hormone receptors? If so, what does this mean?
- What is the HER2 status of my cancer, and what does this mean?
- Is my cancer the kind that grows fast or slow?
- What do breast cancer stage and grade mean?
- Can you explain the pathology report to me?
- Can I get a copy of all my lab reports and images?
After your diagnosis, here are some questions to ask about your cancer care team:
- Who is my main cancer doctor?
- Do I need to see other specialists and when?
- What are the different roles of medical, radiation, and surgical oncologists?
- Who can I talk to if I have more questions about the pros and cons of treatment?
- Who will help me manage physical and emotional side effects of cancer and its treatment?
- How early can I meet with someone from palliative care? How is supportive care helpful?
- Is there someone who can help me talk to my employer about my diagnosis?
- Can I meet with a social worker? How can they help?
- What are the chances my cancer will come back after treatment?
When it comes to your treatment plan, you’ll want to find out:
- How does the biology of my cancer affect treatment?
- What are all the treatment choices for early-stage breast cancer?
- Will I need surgery, radiation, and drug therapy?
- How long do I have before I need treatment?
- Do I need to see a genetic counselor or get genetic testing?
- Should I get a second opinion? If so, can you recommend someone?
You’ll also want to ask:
- What might go wrong during surgery?
- What are the side effects of radiation or drug treatment?
- If I need radiation, how many days a week do I need to get treatment?
- Is radiation therapy always necessary?
- Will I need hormone therapy or chemotherapy before and after surgery?
- Are there any clinical trials I can join?
If your doctor wants you to have surgery, there are several things to consider. You’ll want to ask:
- What are all my surgical options?
- Will the type of surgery I get affect the odds that my cancer will come back?
- Does the size of my breast affect the type of surgery I need?
- Will I need surgery to remove the whole breast (mastectomy)?
- Can I get breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy)?
- Is there a way to do pre-surgery therapy to shrink the tumor?
- Will you take out lymph nodes under my arm? If so, why?
- What is lymphedema? Can I get physical therapy to lessen my chances of getting it?
- Can I see pictures of people who’ve had different types of breast surgery?
- What are the options for reconstruction?
- What are my options not to reconstruct after surgery?
You’ll also want to ask your cancer doctor and surgeon about their experience treating early-stage breast cancer. This’ll help you decide if they’re the right fit for you. Some questions you can ask are:
- How often do you do treat people who have my type of cancer?
- Do you do surgeries like mine a lot? If so, for how many years?
- Do you have a breast cancer specialty? If so, what is it?
- If my case is complex, will you work with a team of specialists to form a treatment plan?
- Do you work with a high-volume cancer hospital or clinic?
- What kind of treatment have you recommended for other people with my type of cancer?
- Do you work with research centers that do clinical trials?
How to Get More Out of Your Visit
Your first round of appointments can be overwhelming. But there are steps you can take to keep track of your schedule, along with any key medical details, including the following:
Take notes. Your doctor may give you an after-visit summary that includes vital info about your diagnosis, treatment, and upcoming visits. Still, it’s a good idea to take notes about what you think is important. You can write things down in a notebook or on your smartphone. You might find it easier to record the conversation, but make sure to get your doctor’s permission first.
Bring someone with you. No matter how much you pay attention, you may not absorb everything your doctor tells you. That’s why it’s always good to have another set of ears by your side. If you can’t bring someone with you in person, ask your doctor if your support person can join via video or speakerphone.
Keep in touch. Ask your doctor who and what number to call if you have questions after your appointment or outside of business hours. Your point person may be a nurse, breast cancer navigator, or someone else on your cancer care team.
Ask for help. Tell your doctor or social worker about any barriers to treatment. These hurdles may not have anything to do with the cancer itself. For example, you can ask for help with child care or transportation, along with financial assistance for housing, food, utilities, or medical bills.
Reach out for emotional support. If you’re having trouble with the emotional aspects of your cancer, ask to speak with a mental health professional who works with people who have early-stage breast cancer. You can also ask your cancer care team for more information on support groups in your area.
Photo Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
Miraj Shah-Khan, MD, medical director, Breast Health Program, Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital, Palos Heights, IL.
Cancer.Net: “Breast Cancer: Questions to Ask the Health Care Team.”
American Cancer Society: “Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Breast Cancer.”
UpToDate: “Choosing surgical treatment for early-stage breast cancer (The Basics).”